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The Criterion Collection presents
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
DVD ReviewWhen interviewed by Francois Truffaut in 1966, Alfred Hitchcock said of Rebecca, "It's not really a Hitchcock film." Indeed, the auteur theory really goes to pieces with regard to any film where imperious David O. Selznick was the producer, as was the case with this picture. While there is some of the trademark Hitchcock suspense, the film owes much more to producer Selznick than to its director.
The lead (Joan Fontaine), whose name is never revealed here as in Daphne du Maurier's book, is a paid companion to the boorish Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. There, "I" meets Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and the two immediately fall in love. When the pair marry and return to de Winter's Cornish estate, Manderley, the shadow of his dead first wife, Rebecca, comes between the two of them. Matters are not helped by the fact that the mysterious Rebecca (who is never shown) was beautiful and fascinated everyone who came in contact with her. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in particular bears Rebecca an obsessive devotion to the point of keeping the woman's room as a shrine. Awkward and gauche, "I" cannot possibly measure up to the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter (or as Mrs. Danvers says, "The REAL Mrs. de Winter"). But then a secret regarding Rebecca comes to light and threatens to overthrow everything completely.
Selznick not only recut and redubbed the picture, but he threw away Hitchcock's treatment for the movie and developed his own script, hewing closely to the original novel. His copious memos make it clear that he wanted to pursue the same technique he had used with the film Gone with the Wind the year before, lifting all dialogue directly from the source novel whenever possible. Accordingly, the picture is practically humorless, a real oddity in Hitchcock's filmography. Yet his artistry still manages to come through; the cinematography, especially at Manderley, is full of shadows, symbolic of Rebecca's omnipresence coming between the newlyweds. Nearly every single shot contains a prominent shadow of some kind. Hitchcock, always the Svengali towards his leading ladies, seems to revel in the discomfort of "I"; in particular, when she arrives at Manderley in a thunderstorm, she reaches the door looking like a wet rat, emphasizing her out-of-place nature against the absolutely proper Mrs. Danvers and the rest of the servants.
Fontaine turns in an excellent performance, vulnerable, awkward but well-meaning. One can't help but feel sympathy for her predicament, treated in a vile manner by all the women in the film, while simultaneously being slightly frustrated at her timidity and fear of the household. Olivier is adequate, though the first choice, Ronald Colman, surely would have been better as Maxim. Olivier hardly has the air of mystery and black mood that is needed for the part. He seems to be sleepwalking here. Judith Anderson steals the show, however, with her bitter and unscrupulous Mrs. Danvers. Her performance is utterly lurid, almost to the point of camp; it's hard to see how she possibly kept a straight face, but she pulls it off absolutely perfectly.
In the end, it's probably just as well that Selznick had control of the film; reading the supplemental materials it becomes clear that, while not really a Hitchcock picture, the end result is certainly superior to what the director had proposed. In any event, the result is a fine and chilling romance that holds up nicely.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The print used is from the original release; the Anchor Bay barebones DVD of the film is of a 1950s rerelease, which has different main titles. This version appears slightly more grainy, but more like film than video. There are some moments, however, notably when there is backlighting through windows, when the grain becomes excessive. Not more than a handful of speckles are visible through the film. While there are a good range of greys, the black levels seem a bit on the weak side. Max's tweedy suit at one point has a fair amount of shimmer visible. The main titles are severely windowboxed; while I approve of windowboxing as a general rule, it's quite overdone here making the titles look miniaturized. Overall, however, the image is quite acceptable.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 English mono sounds fine. Hiss and noise are quite minimal. Dialogue comes through quite well, as does Franz Waxman's score. The music does not have any significant distortion, and has good range for a mono track. While not spectacular, the sound is workmanlike and gets the job done.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film scholar Leonard J. Leff
Packaging: Double Alpha
Layers Switch: 1h:04m:35s
An isolated music and effects track is most welcome here, since Waxman was a very notable film composer and his score for Rebecca is one of his most notable. Screen tests for "I" are included, with Joan Fontaine, Ann Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young and Vivien Leigh all giving their interpretations of one scene; although this eventually becomes monotonous, the differences in the readings are notable. It also becomes clear that Fontaine really was the best choice. Costume, hair and makeup tests for Fontaine are included, as well as many of the memos that went back and forth between Hitchcock and Selznick. Copious photos are included (though the "hundreds" listed on the keepcase is a clear exaggeration).
A lengthy pamphlet contains several essays, including one by pioneering Hitchcock author Robin Wood. The book has plenty of valuable content, though it is chockfull of spoilers, so don't read it if you've not seen the picture before.
Wrapping up the package are three different one-hour radio adaptations of Rebecca. The first is a classic rendition by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, starring Welles and Margaret Sullavan. This one comes complete with numerous Campbell's soup commercials, and the program is ended by a brief statement by du Maurier. Second is a 1941 adaptation of the screenplay starring Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino. This production admirably boils the film down to a one-hour running time without really losing much, indicating that the picture probably could have been trimmed a bit without much harm. However, Mrs. Danvers (Anderson again) gets rather short shrift here, and that would be a loss. The final version is a 1950 adaptation featuring Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh. Leigh sounds far too mature for the part, and makes clear that casting her (despite Olivier's insistence long after shooting had begun) would have been a mistake.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe Best Picture Oscar ® winner of 1940 gets the royal treatment from Criterion. An attractive transfer, and a plethora of extras make this an essential part of any film lover's library.
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